Earlier this month, Adam Rasmussen responded to Fr. Chad Ripperger’s theory of Church authority, summarizing it as an approach in which “any magisterial statements that do not define dogmas … may be questioned if they seem to contradict earlier statements.” This outlook has become increasingly common in the years since Ripperger’s 2001 essay, as it has now been adopted by numerous Catholics who accept Vatican II and most of the post-conciliar popes but are critical of Pope Francis’s teachings specifically.
The past few years have provided many examples of why this hermeneutic is unsustainable. When the faithful take it upon themselves to judge the orthodoxy of papal teaching, they often disagree among themselves about what is “in continuity” with Tradition and what isn’t. Back in August, Deacon Bill Ditewig wrote about Archbishop Viganò’s response to Fr. Thomas Weinandy, a Capuchin priest and theologian whose open letter to Pope Francis in 2017 led to his resignation as a doctrinal consultant to the USCCB, and who—despite Crux’s report that Weinandy had “no plans to promote his criticism of Francis beyond the letter”—has continued to criticize the pontiff, even accusing him of “internal papal schism” in an essay in October 2019. Unlike Francis’s traditionalist detractors, Weinandy is far from a critic of the Second Vatican Council. Prior to his time as executive director of the doctrine office at the USCCB from 2005-2013 (where he was responsible for upholding the teachings of the Council and the postconciliar popes), he had been a prominent member of a Catholic charismatic community for 19 years. That is hardly the pedigree of a radical anti-Vatican II traditionalist.
Not unlike a radical traditionalist, however, Fr. Weinandy seems to have drawn a line in the magisterial sand—a point at which the continued development of Church teaching suddenly comes to a halt. Unlike the radical traditionalists, who draw that line somewhere around the opening of the council in 1962, Weinandy puts it at the end of February 2013 with the resignation of Pope Benedict.
Fr. Weinandy decided to criticize Archbishop Viganò’s attacks on Vatican II in the summer of 2020, which led to a series of back-and-forth essays between himself and the renegade archbishop. Weinandy defended many of the signs of the “beneficent-grace of the Holy Spirit” that have blessed the Church as a result of the Council, including new religious movements, the renewal of religious orders, and what he describes as “an authentic theological revival, one that I never thought I would see in my lifetime.” He even argued that “the post-Vatican II Church is now able to defend confidently, and profess more clearly, its authentic and traditional moral teaching on an array of controverted moral issues.”
After Viganò’s first response, in which he accurately compares his own statements about the Council to the “almost literal parallel” of Weinandy’s statements about Pope Francis, Weinandy shot back:
Because the archbishop sees Vatican II as a “container-council” into which heretical elements were smuggled, he designates it “a devil council.” If such was and still is the case, then we would have to admit that Ecumenical Councils do not necessarily teach reliably the faith handed down from the apostles, even where a council, including Vatican II, intends to state definitive doctrine.
Such a position smacks of being the unforgivable sin against the Holy Spirit. One has essentially placed one’s own judgement over that of the Council.
Viganò quickly shot back, pointing to the hypocrisy of Weinandy in describing the pope as schismatic but finding fault in Viganò’s describing the Council as schismatic:
If you admit, dear Father Thomas – as a painful trial to which Providence is subjecting the Church in order to punish her for the faults of her most unworthy members and especially of her leaders – that the Pope himself is in a state of schism with the Church, to the point of being able to speak of an “internal papal schism”, why can you not accept that the same has happened for a solemn act like a Council, and that Vatican II was a case of “internal Magisterial schism”? If it is possible for this Pope to be “for all practical purposes schismatic” – and I would say also heretical – why could not that Council also have been so, despite the fact that both one and the other were instituted by Our Lord to confirm the brethren in Faith and Morals?
He asks a good question. Of course, both of them are wrong. The Magisterium didn’t die in 1962 and it didn’t die in 2013. We still have the pope, and we still have the council, and both institutions hold the same authority and provide us with the same assurance of the Church’s fidelity to the teachings of Jesus Christ as they have for the last 2000 years.
Notre Dame’s Church Life Journal published a very good essay by Jordan Haddad and Luke Arredondo on the subject of theologians (and armchair theologians) putting their private judgements over that of the Church’s magisterial authority. In their essay, entitled “A Syllabus of Internet Theology Errors,” the authors lament what they describe as “a considerable increase in the number of Catholic voices in the digital square who have adopted a hermeneutic of skepticism and cynicism with respect to the Second Vatican Council and the postconciliar papacies.”
Without naming names—although a few easily come to mind—they remind us of the nature of theology and teaching authority in the Church. We cannot forget that the Church teaches that the pope “is the perpetual and visible source and foundation of the unity both of the bishops and of the whole company of the faithful” (CCC 882). This primacy of the pope is not merely symbolic. The pope has the authority to settle doctrinal disputes and make judgements about matters of Church teaching. This authority does not depend on our approval of what he says. The authors explain:
Christ wisely instituted a living, divinely guaranteed teaching authority in the Church, the Magisterium, which safeguards, develops, and proclaims the Word of God communicated to his chosen people of the Old Testament and the Church of the New Testament. This Magisterium, which consists of the successor of Peter and those bishops who are in communion with him, is intrinsic to the nature of the Church and is given the prerogative of authoritatively teaching the whole of the Church so that the deposit of faith might not only be preserved from error but also be fructified and proclaimed to the world.
While the Magisterium consists of both the pope and the bishops, it is the pope who stands at the center as the chief shepherd and the “servant of the servants of God.” The pope occupies the See of St. Peter, which “always remains unblemished by any error,” and, as Vatican I asserts,
This gift of truth and never-failing faith was therefore divinely conferred on Peter and his successors in this see so that they might discharge their exalted office for the salvation of all, and so that the whole flock of Christ might be kept away by them from the poisonous food of error and be nourished with the sustenance of heavenly doctrine.
Since theology is, by its nature, “faith seeking understanding” and this objective faith is divinely guaranteed and known by virtue of the Word of God authoritatively interpreted and safeguarded by the Spirit-endowed Magisterium, it goes without saying that theology is dependent upon and subservient to the authoritative Magisterium of the Church. This was true in the Patristic Age, the Medieval Age, the Modern Age, and it is true today, for there is only one Magisterium that exists throughout salvation history just as there is only one Church.
I honestly don’t know how Catholics who oppose the teachings of Pope Francis handle the cognitive dissonance. How do they think we should respond to all the Catholics who claim to be teaching the true faith, while disagreeing with the pope and each other? What are we supposed to do when Fr. Ripperger says Catholics should reject some aspects of Vatican II, but Fr. Weinandy says Catholics should accept Vatican II but reject the teachings of Pope Francis, and Viganò says we should reject them both? Should we consider the position of the former Fr. Jeremy Leatherby, who says Benedict is still pope? Maybe we should listen to Cardinal Burke when he says that Pope Francis’s official teachings are simply his “opinions as a man.” Even farther afield is a man in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, who believes there hasn’t been a true pope since 1130. And who can forget Pope Michael, a farmer in Kansas who has insisted on his claim to the papacy since 1990?
A phrase I’ve heard occasionally (usually said in a negative light about Protestant Christians) is that if you reject the pope, “you become your own pope.” The same clearly applies to Catholics. Are so-called traditionalists really adhering to the Church’s tradition on the papacy? Consider these words of Pope Leo XIII:
It belongs to the Pope to judge authoritatively what things the sacred oracles contain, as well as what doctrines are in harmony, and what in disagreement, with them; and also, for the same reason, to show forth what things are to be accepted as right, and what to be rejected as worthless; what it is necessary to do and what to avoid doing, in order to attain eternal salvation. For, otherwise, there would be no sure interpreter of the commands of God, nor would there be any safe guide showing man the way he should live. (Sapientiae Christianae, 24)
Catholicism without the pope is a wilderness of divergent opinions. Whether we’re happy with his decisions or not, whether we find them consistent with tradition or not, whether we like his style or not, whether we think he’s just totally wrong, he’s the guarantor of orthodoxy in the Catholic Church. And as we’ve seen the traditionalist movement fracture and become deeply enmeshed in apocalypticism and conspiracy theories, and as the leaders of this movement are exposed to be ever more paranoid, unbalanced, and deceptive, perhaps it’s time to consider giving the leadership and spiritual insight of Pope Francis another chance.
Image: Adobe Stock.
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Mike Lewis is the founding managing editor of Where Peter Is. He and Jeannie Gaffigan co-host Field Hospital, a U.S. Catholic podcast.